Kim: The Fallacy of “Follow Your Passion”
By Yoo Jung Kim, Staff Columnist
Published on Monday, September 24, 2012
A fair number of my now-graduated friends are struggling in the dismal job market, still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Some have accepted internships with meager pay to bolster their resume. Others have entered master’s programs, avoiding the long-term commitment of a PhD while holding onto the hope that an advanced degree will qualify them for a whole range of careers. When I ask these friends what they are looking for, their eyes light up and they say that they are looking for a job that they could be passionate about — they aren’t willing to settle for anything less.
New York Times columnist David Brooks described this now-familiar scenario in a controversial column for the graduating class of 2011, which resonates with college students and young graduates to this day. Time and time again, we are fooled into thinking that degrees will create limitless possibilities, within which, according to our cultural mantra, we will be able to find ourselves.
We don’t just want a full-time job; we want a calling that stokes our passion. Yet this outlook is also potentially dangerous, considering that the word “passion,” while painted positively, is a broad and ambiguous concept. In the context of common parlance, it could mean anything from “interest” to “ardent love or affection.” For the sake of argument and clarity, I’ll be making my case with the latter denotation. By taking this love-at-first-sight approach toward work, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. How do we know in advance whether we can fall in love with something before we try it? This is the rationale that medical schools and science PhD programs — both lifetime commitments — have in requiring applicants to have a fair amount of exposure to their path of choice, whether through shadowing or involvement in hypothesis-based research.
Still, despite its dubious premise, “follow your passion” is the de rigueur of our generation. To suggest otherwise would be going against our generation’s most cherished ethos, but that’s exactly what Cal Newport ’04, now a computer science professor at Georgetown University, has done with his new book.
“So Good They Can’t Ignore You” is an unconventional self-help guide, one that eschews the hackneyed advice “follow your passion.” Rather, Newport argues that you have to get good before you can get good work, and that passion — again defined as the love for one’s work — ought to grow out of one’s growing competency. Newport writes, “I have argued that ‘follow your passion’ is a bad advice, as most people aren’t born with pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered. If your goal is to love what you do, you must first build up ‘career capital’ by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital for the traits that define great work.” Newport turns our cultural paradigm on its head. Passion does not directly lead to stronger work — strong work inspires passion.
This convoluted path toward passion depends on our patience and ability to master the skills necessary to advance. Initial interest can sustain our goal of improving at what we do, and after we have made ourselves integral in our working environment, we can demand more control over aspects of our jobs such as project choice, work hours and compensation. Gaining mastery over a given skill set and acquiring control over our careers allows us to develop pride and passion for our work.
This observation is a constructive remedy for our current generation of graduates who would rather adopt the wait-and-see approach. In the dismal job market, our Ivy League degrees won’t be enough. We need to rid ourselves of the patronizing notion that interest and courage alone will lead to the work that we can love. Rather, we should revise our paradigm and understand that we need to become good at working before focusing upon getting a good job that also stokes our passion.
As for current students, Newport offered this word of advice via email: “My biggest warning to an incoming Dartmouth student is that it’s folly to try to figure out your whole career at such a young age. The idea that we all have a preexisting passion that we can identify and follow is bogus.” He opined that students should not get hung up on finding the “perfect job.” Rather, in college, we should seek interesting opportunities that can offer us interesting options if we do well and, following graduation, continue to hone the skills that we have developed to “a path to a compelling working life.”